Where to begin with Sidney Lumet

In the week of Sidney Lumet’s centenary, we pick a path through the recurring themes of law, order and justice that defined his colossal film career – from 12 Angry Men to Dog Day Afternoon.

The Verdict (1982)

Why this might not seem so easy

Sidney Lumet left an immense body of work behind him when he died in 2011. In the 50-year stretch from his first feature to his last, he racked up a total of 44 films (which is to say nothing of the dozens of hours of television he also directed, at the beginning and end of his career). To anyone approaching the Lumet catalogue fresh, such volume alone would be intimidating.

Equally imposing, though, is the director’s reputation as an American master. Lumet churned out work, but it wasn’t as a journeyman. Even if stylistically his stamp wasn’t always obvious, Lumet carried strong thematic concerns through all of his films, while he was forged by early experiences in theatre (acting then directing on Broadway) and television (directing on a production line of mostly live TV) into both premier actor’s director and well-oiled technician of the moving image.

At his best, Lumet made essential films, the kind now counted in the canon of great American cinema. For any newcomer to Lumet’s filmography, the issue, if it could be called that, is simply finding the time to work through everything worthwhile.

The best place to start – Dog Day Afternoon

While he was already a veteran of dozens of big and small screen projects by the time the New Hollywood era came around, Lumet reached arguably his creative summit in that free, fecund time for American cinema – 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon being one of his crowning achievements from the period. Based on a real incident that took place in New York on a boiling summer day in 1972, the heist-gone-awry thriller sees would-be robbers Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) try to negotiate their way out of the increasingly humid Brooklyn bank where they – and their handful of hostages – have become trapped by a small army of cops.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Dog Day Afternoon is an ideal intro to Lumet’s New York, a location the Manhattanite filmmaker explored to its fullest throughout his career, though never with a more pungent sense of the place. The film’s scope is wider than the city, however. Social concerns powered Lumet, and mid-1970s America gave the director ample fuel: Dog Day Afternoon nods to then-hot button issues including Vietnam (Sonny is a veteran), police violence and an inflation-hit economy driving up civil disorder. As a growing crowd of law enforcement, media and demonstrators clash and jostle for space around the bank, you might wonder if it isn’t the friction within post-countercultural America that’s generating that heat.

What to watch next

In the 2015 documentary By Sidney Lumet, Lumet says that the question ‘Is it fair?’ is the “bedrock concern” that can be found running through all of his work. The director tried his hand at a few different kinds of movie – comedy, spy thriller, disco-era update of The Wizard of Oz – but it was films about crime and justice that he most frequently and fervently returned to to consider that bedrock concern.

The work of (usually bent) cops was much scrutinised by Lumet, most notably in 1973’s Serpico. Based on the life of Frank Serpico (played by Al Pacino), a New York detective who became a marked man after he exposed dirty colleagues in his department, the film is suffused with the paranoid flavour of its time. For a grander spin on the police corruption theme, see Prince of the City (1981), an epic procedural about an investigation into NYPD rot that grows to feature so many players it becomes dizzying.

Running on Empty (1988)

Forever sceptical of authority, Lumet had more sympathy for criminals, whether American radicals whose offspring are forced to live with their parents’ actions in Daniel (1983) and Running on Empty (1988) – Lumet’s two most deeply felt films – or two brothers who rob the family store in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007).

No matter how bad the crime, Lumet was always sensitive to whatever it was about a system that might lead someone to offend – or reoffend. The Hill (1965), one of cinema’s essential prison dramas, finds a group of British military prisoners, including a principled former officer played by regular Lumet player Sean Connery, driven by sadistic jailers to crimes worse than those which got them banged up in the first place.

The Hill (1965)

The courthouse was the primary setting for a number of Lumet’s films, the best of them being his astonishingly assured debut feature, 12 Angry Men (1957). As the New York summer heat gradually ups the pressure inside a jury room, one decent man (Henry Fonda) tries to convince his fellow jurors not to send an 18-year-old to the electric chair, in the process unpicking the societal prejudices and disadvantages that made the boy a suspect. 1982’s The Verdict is more cynical, the film finding the American justice system antithetical to decency: it takes an amoral, alcoholic lawyer (Paul Newman) having a sudden crisis of conscience to represent a woman left in a vegetative state by powerful figures.

Lumet favoured an economical classicism as a filmmaker, writing in his 1995 book Making Movies: “Good style, to me, is unseen style.” (See the unshowy yet beautifully precise compositions of Prince of the City for a most satisfying example.) Lumet also believed, however, that style should be suggested by the material, and occasionally the material inspired in him something showier.

1964’s The Pawnbroker and 1973’s The Offence both use editing to imply the brittle psychology of their respective protagonists, a Holocaust survivor (Rod Steiger, remarkably restrained) for whom New York City life keeps slipping into flashbacks of his time in a concentration camp, and an imploding detective (Connery) troubled by sudden memories of violence. Another film of Lumet’s from 1964, Fail Safe, like a straight-faced cousin of Dr. Strangelove (1964) imagines the build-up to a nuclear exchange between the US and Russia with nothing but horror. Its stark black and white photography in moments nudges into nightmarish expressionism.

The Pawnbroker (1964)

For all that Lumet favoured murk and complexity, he also on occasion had himself some fun. His Murder on the Orient Express (1974) remains the most pleasurable of big screen Poirot adaptations, a luxurious staging of Agatha Christie’s whodunit acted with knowingly heightened dramatics by an all-star cast. When Lumet tried the murder mystery a second time, with Deathtrap (1982), he did it as pure farce, with Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve gamely playing two playwrights trying to out-scheme one another in a knotted pastiche of a crime thriller.

Another Lumet comedy, again of the blacker sort, is among the director’s very best: Network (1976), a satire about an ageing news anchor (Peter Finch) who becomes a ratings sensation after he has a breakdown on air, is both merciless media send-up and sobering assessment of humanity in an age of runaway capitalism. Almost half-a-century old, this one remains modern.

Network (1976)

Though they tend to be less cinematic than his others, many of the films that Lumet adapted from plays by titans of the theatre are also very  worthwhile. Richard Burton relishes the rich poetry of playwright Peter Shaffer’s meditation on God and Freud in Equus (1977), about a jaded psychiatrist investigating what possessed a boy to blind a stable full of horses. Even better is Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962), Lumet’s monumental adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer-winning domestic drama that sees Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Dean Stockwell and Jason Robards unravel spectacularly in a near three-hour display of actorly acrobatics.

Where not to start

Lumet didn’t always get it right. The director himself readily admitted as much, writing disparagingly in Making Movies of his attempts at comedy (on Bye Bye Braverman (1968): “[It] was practically a perfect script. And I wound up with a pancake instead of a soufflé”) and fantasy (on The Wiz (1978): “I simply didn’t know enough technically to master all departments, particularly special effects”).

Lumet’s 1999 thriller Gloria, meanwhile, was such a critical and financial failure that the usually prolific director didn’t make another feature for seven years. When he returned, with his penultimate film, Find Me Guilty (2006), Lumet was on surer ground. Putting the director back in a courtroom, with a winningly unglamorous Vin Diesel as a Mafia schlub representing himself at trial, the film is a minor but enjoyably comic work – and evidence, along with his superior final picture Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, that Lumet remained to the end most energised by matters of law and order.

Network is back in cinemas, including BFI Southbank, from 28 June 2024.

The Pawnbroker and Equus are available on BFI Blu-ray/DVD.